The 2006-2007 University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh men's basketball team went 21-6, finished second in a stacked Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) and ended the season ranked sixth in the nation. But a loss in the semifinals of the WIAC Tournament left the Titans at the mercy of the NCAA Division III Selection Committee, which reserved just 18 at-large bids. And when the 59-team championship field had been set, UW-Oshkosh-and seven other teams in the national top 25 rankings-found themselves on the outside looking in.
This is a storyline that has played itself out with increasing-and alarming-frequency in recent years. Every NCAA division has teams that cry "snub." One need look no further than the yearly controversy surrounding the Bowl Championship Series or the "bubble team" debate last month. But when it comes to Division III-the NCAA's largest, most diverse and, increasingly, most problematic division-the number-crunching gets a lot tighter.
"The size of Division III is close to 450 now, and that's really a maximum for us," NCAA President Myles Brand said. "It's funny, because it's not a bad problem to have, too many schools wanting to join the pack. But if we get any larger, we simply can't conduct championships well."
Consider the postseason men's basketball tournament, arguably the biggest event in the NCAA in terms of national attention and prestige. In the 2005-2006 season, 334 schools fielded Division I men's basketball teams. After 30 bids went to automatically-qualifying conference champions, teams seeking at-large bids were looking at an access ratio of about 8.5:1. The same year, there were 405 Division III teams. Of the 59 spots in the tournament, 37 went to automatic qualifiers, leaving just 18 slots for 383 non-conference champions. The access ratio for those teams? More than 21:1.
"Division I basketball is an example of a tournament that works well," said Bill Gehling,
Athletics Director at Tufts University, a Division III. "There are a lot of automatic bids to small teams from small conferences, but there are enough at-large bids that anybody who's truly a top-25 team in the country is going to get in. That's the best of both worlds, but it's not the case in Division III, and it's causing real problems."
Access to national championships is just one aspect of a deeper problem that, after nearly two decades of growing concern, has reached a tipping point: Division III has too many members, too few resources and no real consensus on where it's going. Its membership has more than doubled since its creation in 1973, and now sits at more than 450, making it the largest of the NCAA's branches. It is also the most diverse-its member institutions range from 500 to more than 10,000 in enrollment, include coed and single-sex student bodies and sponsor anywhere from 10 to 26 sports.
Cracks have surfaced in several specific policy areas, including limits on out-of-season practice and competition, the minimum number of sports required for eligibility and the length of postseason play. These disagreements are not trivial, and reflect a much deeper rift among the division's members, many of whom are more recent émigrés from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), an alternative playing structure to the NCAA. The NAIA is far less restrictive than the NCAA, especially in Division III's "signature" areas: there is no minimum number of sports required, regulations on out-of-season activity are minimal and, in starkest contrast to Division III, NAIA members may offer athletic scholarships. The flood of these schools into the NCAA, which has accelerated since the mid-1990s, has not only strained the financial and logistical resources of Division III, but has created friction about the future viability of its core mission.
"We're at odds philosophically with a lot of members in the division," said Dennis Collins, executive director of the North Coast Athletic Conference. "A lot of schools are in Division III because there's no place else to go. It's the cheapest road to the NCAA, which is considered the gold standard.
We say we need a long-range plan to determine how many members we want."
As this philosophical consensus begins to fray around the edges, it brings a host of logistical headaches, which is where UW-Oshkosh-and the handful of teams like it every year-enters the picture. With most national tournaments reaching the legislated 64-team capacity, the set length of a three-week postseason (for all sports except football) and an increasing number of teams with eligibility, access to championships has become the monkey on the back of the division's leadership.
"By being so big and having limited staff and resources, some aspects of our athletic programs really suffer, and the selection process for national championships is one of those," Collins said. "We just don't have enough spots for all the good teams. It's an obvious problem."
And with the problem growing clearer over the past decade, the debate finally came to a head at the 2007 Convention, where the division's ballooning membership and overstretched resources took center stage. The January meeting in Orlando yielded no major headlines, but did put the division on a two-year plan, which set a vote on a major structural change (likely some kind of divisional split) for 2009.
"We don't quite know what the model looks like yet," said Andrea Savage, executive director of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), the collection of northern liberal arts colleges that is one of Division III's most restrictive and successful leagues. "There have been many conversations over the years about what to do about Division III, and this meeting was the first step."
What the second step will be, however, is still unclear. Proposals, none yet formal, have included the creation of an entirely new division-a Division IV, so to speak-the split of Division III into A and AA divisions playing towards a single national champion, or the creation of several regional championship structures. Several working groups will unveil plans for reorganization at the 2008 Convention in Nashville next winter.
These proposals have led to a polarization of the division's membership. In one camp sit the traditionalists, like the members of Collins' NCAC, or Savage's NESCAC. These leagues offer a much larger number of sports, usually between 25 and 30, and generally have stricter regulations than Division III requires. For example, NESCAC prohibits its football teams from competing in the NCAA Championship, a practice born out of fears that football will turn into a money-making venture and detract from the academic mission.
Across the spectrum are programs for which Division III's old-school regulations have become something of a burden. These schools are mostly newer members, part of the flood from the NAIA. They lack the historical legacy of broad-based programming shared by the traditionalists and tend to concentrate their resources on fewer sports, closer to the NCAA minimum of ten.
The wheels are in motion for a split between the two, in what would constitute the largest structural change since the creation of Divisions I, II and III in 1973. In addition to easing the championship squeeze, a split could reinvigorate the original Division III philosophy while allowing more freedom to schools that have strayed from it.
"Our personal view as a conference is that we'd rather see a new playing division, so that members that do have a different philosophy could go somewhere else," Collins said. "It would be a haven to them, and I think they'd feel much more comfortable there. In the process, we might lose 100 or 150 members and that would help Division III with its problems. It's the obvious answer to me, politically and practically."
Like all restructuring processes, whatever change 2009 brings will come with its own set of problems, as the lines get drawn, allegiances defined, conferences reshuffled and, perhaps, disbanded. The continuum between the two poles is littered with schools, and talent doesn't overwhelmingly pool at either end, making a clean divorce of the two camps unlikely. But for UW- Oshkosh and the handful of qualified teams whose seasons end too soon, a few growing pains are a small price to pay for the ability to control its own fate next February.